A landmark event occurred on Feb. 28, 2013 when an acting Pontiff stepped down from active ministry.  The last pope to do so was Gregory XII who stepped down as a result of the conflicts over the Avignon Papacy.  Presently, this decision by Benedict XVI has not been without its diverse share of reactions, speculations, and proclamations that run the gamut from criticism to admiration. Less than a month later, on March 13, 2013 after much speculation from the secular and religious press, 116 cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to the papacy.  Now Pope Francis enters the world stage.  Where does that leave us as a Church living in the light of this historical change?

Change is always an exciting time and an opportunity to pursue new directions and enhance time honored and tested traditions.  It is clear in just the last few days, change is ahead for the Catholic Church.  Many are quick to observe this change will not be in doctrine, but more in emphasis. 

At his homily on Tuesday, Pope Francis told world leaders and the world, “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life, and all men and women of good will: Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”  He continued, “Let us never forget that authentic power is service.  Let us not forget that hatred, envy, and pride defile our lives; we must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness.”

The Church, despite popular thought, has over the past 2,000 years, experienced its fair share of changes, shifts, and rebirths. Over those 2,000 years, despite all of its changes, the Church, the Papacy in particular, has remained a voice in our global world. 

Despite our differences in opinion on specific matters of dogma and doctrine, it is clear to see the moral relevance and advantage of an office such as the Papacy.  The nature and role of the Papacy afford the Pope the ability to speak to a wide audience that transcends our own social constructs of class, economics, race, and nationality.  The Pope, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, is the same Pope to Africans as he is to the Americans, Europeans, Asians, and so on.  He can speak from this world stage and position to encourage dialogue and the common good within our global community.  

That said, it is often noted how slow the Papacy is to change, even though, change is certainly happening.  We often receive from the media an image of a painfully ineffective Papal bureaucracy.  This is widely discussed in recent days.  There is a famous story of a reporter asking Pope John XXIII, “Exactly how many people work in the Vatican?”  John XXIII, a very jolly personality, responded, “About half of them.”  The Vatican bureaucracy is rather quite small and consistently has much to address around the world.  It is believed that only about 1,000 people actually work for the Vatican including Swiss Guards, museum curators, and postal workers.  It is a very small city-state and Church, especially when thinking in terms of a global Catholic population of over a billion people and over 120 diplomatic posts around the world.  What doesn’t change, won’t change, and can’t change is the mission of the Church to speak for justice, hope, and human life in a complex, difficult, and often evil world with great conflicts.

In our technologically advancing society, we want things yesterday and at a faster pace.  We may no longer see as useful slow-moving institutions and offices such as that of the Papacy.  Perhaps the slow moving nature of the Papacy and its seemingly glacial reaction to change is actually an example for us all caught up in the whirlwind of daily change.  As a people, we are quick to move on to the latest trend, but the Papal office diligently reminds us that all new ideas should be weighed against a history of time-tested tradition and the concerns of a global community beyond our own borders.  To be certain, this slow-moving pace has not been, however, without its drawbacks.  Many have felt alienated by the failure of the Pope and Church to adequately respond to the sexual abuse of minors, the needs of women, and those in the LGBT community. Even the Church’s own mission to share the love of Christ, sadly, remains unheard by many.  One can certainly add a whole list of other issues and concerns that need attention from all corners of the globe, especially where poverty, violence, and persecution are a daily struggle.  Going forward, Pope Francis, it seems, will challenge our moral sensibilities as he shepherds his people with a Pastor’s heart.  Perhaps the election of Pope Francis will change all of our hearts. 

The Rev. Brian C. Cool is the Director of Catholic Newman Community Pastoral Care

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